The government has launched a £4m competition calling for innovators to trial what could be a quicker and more cost-effective way of connecting fibre optic cables to homes, businesses and mobile masts, without the disruption caused by digging up roads and land.
Civil works, in particular installing new ducts and poles, can make up as much as four fifths of the costs to industry of building new gigabit-capable broadband networks.
Digital Infrastructure Minister Matt Warman said: “The cost of digging up roads and land is the biggest obstacle telecoms companies face when connecting hard-to-reach areas to better broadband, but beneath our feet there is a vast network of pipes reaching virtually every building in the country.
“So we are calling on Britain’s brilliant innovators to help us use this infrastructure to serve a dual purpose of serving up not just fresh and clean water but also lightning-fast digital connectivity.”
The project will also look to test solutions that reduce the amount of water lost every day due to leaks, which is 20% of the total put into the public supply.
It will involve putting connected sensors in the pipes which allow water companies to improve the speed and accuracy with which they can identify a leak and repair it.
Any solution used to trial fibre optic cables in the water mains will be approved by the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) before being used in a real world setting. The DWI requires rigorous testing ahead of approving any products that can be used in drinking water pipes, and fibre has already been deployed in water pipes in other countries such as Spain.
The government is already considering giving broadband firms access to more than a million kilometres of underground utility ducts to boost the rollout of next-generation broadband – including electricity, gas and sewer networks – and will soon respond to a consultation on changing regulations to make infrastructure sharing easier.
The government has already given broadband suppliers access to existing infrastructure to help speed up roll out, with electricity poles used extensively throughout England to carry broadband cables.
The Fibre in Water project is due to conclude in March 2024. The final year of the project will explore scaling proven solutions right across the country.
Deadline for applications to the competition is 4 October.